A Philosophical Primer

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 7:29 PM By Brian Niemeier , In , , , , , ,

We children of postmodernism find ourselves in a curious age when philosophy is derided as vain woolgathering while a specific set of dominant philosophies fundamentally affect our thoughts and actions. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the effects of philosophical thought have seldom been greater, yet the study of and critical reaction to the discipline itself is generally discouraged.

As a result of this philosophically ambivalent culture, most people adopt makeshift personal ideologies lacking even basic internal consistency. This approach, especially when it comes to morals and ethics, is gravely problematic. Truth can't contradict truth, and the person who, for example, claims to respect the universal value of human life while supporting unrestricted capital punishment shows a lack of integrity that denies access to the full truth. This kind of intellectual cherry picking also erodes the moral force of one's convictions, making it difficult to convince others.

Philosophy is undeniably important--even vital--to individuals and societies alike. It is the search for wisdom: the knowledge of what is good and therefore of how to live a good life. Philosophy governs persons, families, and governments. In fact adopting a personal philosophy seems to be the default human condition since even attempts to deny it (i.e. skepticism) fall into the category of philosophy themselves.

The following is a short list of positive and negative guidelines for examining one's personal philosophy to attain greater internal consistency.

1. Examine others' positions and your own assumptions critically. Reject gullibility and obstinacy while being intellectually honest.
Don't default to a position of doubt. Avoid the Cartesian mistake of starting from existential doubt and trying to work your way up to universal truths. It's an unnecessary presumption, contradicts itself (how can you know that you think if you doubt everything else?), and is impossible besides.

2. Take the time to study philosophy. Many people believe that they can figure out the true nature of reality on their own. Many people are wrong. While the rare Gautama Siddhartha comes along every few thousand years, most of us need a strong foundation of systematic logic to learn how to think and exposure to the works of great philosophers to broaden our perspective.
Don't fall into syncretism. As noted above, a major problem degrading the quality of civil discourse is people's tendency to pick and choose their convictions from myriad (sometimes conflicting) philosophies. This lack of internal consistency is called syncretism. One of its major downfalls is syncretism's tendency to isolate its adherents in their own private intellectual worlds, which makes meaningful dialogue difficult.

3. Have fidelity to the truth. The whole point of philosophy is to know and live the truth. Living in a way that's in line with how reality works will logically foster order and happiness. Even if you conclude to a nihilistic universe without purpose, accepting the harshest truth is still better than living a lie.
Don't be seduced by relativism. When confronted with the sheer variety of philosophies that have been proposed as accurate models of reality, it is tempting to make a kind of intellectual compromise by claiming that truth varies from person to person. This kind of relativism isn't a rational compromise. It's a lazy way of dodging one's obligation to pursue truth. Saying that each person can have his or her own truth actually denies the existence of the universal truth which is philosophy's goal. Therefore, relativism is a form of anti-philosophy that clouds one's view of reality instead of clarifying it. Like pure skepticism, it is also self-contradictory because the premise that truth is relative is itself proposed as a universal truth.

4. Argue in good faith. Seek out people with contrary viewpoints and hear them out. It can be frustrating to come across an opposing argument one can't defeat, but if you don't understand your opponent's position, you don't fully understand your own.
Don't build straw men or resort to bullying. More than one debater has fallen back on red herrings and name-calling when pressed. Dispense with dishonest and lazy tactics like these. Fight the urge to call the person arguing against your support of gay marriage a homophobe. Such ad hominem attacks neither defeat your opponent's argument nor prove yours. They only shut down dialogue. Likewise, willfully misinterpreting a position with which you disagree to make it easier to defeat accomplishes nothing.

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